Border Strip: Three Stories

By LUQMAN DERKI

Translated by JONATHAN WRIGHT

A Trip to Ain Diwar

We woke up at five o’clock in the morning and ran to the Hophop bus that was waiting at the school gate. It was colored and beautiful and had the words Scania speaks and the Volvo hurts written on it. The children stood in line in an orderly fashion as they boarded the bus. Teacher was carrying a stick made from a pomegranate branch given to him by the son of a local official, who is lazy but who always comes first in class. Sheikh Khadir, the driver, was washing the bus, and as they boarded, the children splashed the children behind them with water.

Then Teacher said, “Sit at the back,” so we sat at the back, and then he said, “Cross your arms,” so we crossed our arms. Teacher’s friends and the misses sat at the front while Teacher and Miss Reema sat near the driver, and the bus set off. We all clapped, and Teacher said, “Shut up. Where do you think you are, on a plane?” Sheikh Khadir put on a tape of Salaho, a Kurdish singer from Qamishli, who was singing “Boys,” and the bus went flying along.

Teacher was annoyed with the song and asked for the tape to be changed, but Sheikh Khadir refused. Teacher took the tape out of the tape player, and Sheikh Khadir got upset and slammed on the brakes, and the bus stopped. Our heads hit the metal rests, and our noses bled, and we wiped the blood on our clothes. Sheikh Khadir then turned around and drove the bus back to Dirbasiya, and the bus went flying along.

Sheikh Khadir stopped the bus outside the door of his house and sounded the horn, and his wife, Amina, came out. She made him a pot of proper tea. He sat on the small chair smoking a long Hamra cigarette. Teacher’s friends came and begged Sheikh Khadir to get back on the bus, but he again refused. Amina stood with him, proud of him, and then the misses came and asked him to get on the bus so that we could go on the trip, but he still refused. Then Teacher apologised to him and asked him again to get on the bus so that we could go to Ain Diwar. But the sheikh only got more upset and said, “I’ll only go to Ain Diwar over my dead body,” and we all remembered our lesson about heroic Youssef al-Azmah and the battle of Maysaloun.

Then Miss Reema came and said, “You’re the best driver in the world. Come on, let’s go to Ain Diwar for the sake of the children.” Sheikh Khadir stood up, hit his wife, kicked the teapot over, and got on the bus. The bus set off again, and Miss Reema pecked him on the cheek and said, “Thanks, Khadir.” Sheikh Khadir laughed, and we noticed his gold tooth. Then he threw the Salaho tape out of the window, and the bus went flying along.

The math teacher started singing, There were six of us at the spring, and we sang the refrain, And along came my beloved, and then we were seven. Teacher was clapping, and Miss Reema was dancing after taking off her headscarf and wrapping it round her waist. Teacher’s friend was a drummer, though we’d thought he was another teacher. We saw scenes of nature along the road, and we saw beautiful rivers and springs. We saw flowers in the shape of clocks, and we saw green hills and beautiful plains. We saw the cow that races the train, but we didn’t see the train. We saw the dams that prevent floods and generate electricity, and we saw the hardworking farmer chasing the horrible feudalist. We saw the hardworking farmer plowing with a modern plow and the ordinary farmer plowing with an old plow, and the modern plow was much superior. We saw the chairman of the farmers’ association defending the farmers. We saw the cowardly Zionist running away from the Arab soldier, and the bus went flying along.

Then we reached Ain Diwar, and Teacher said, “Sit down under the mulberry tree.”

“But it’s a fig tree,” Hallazo told him.

“Sit under the fig tree, you idiot,” said Teacher.

We sat down, and it was a mulberry tree. Then Teacher said, “Cross your arms and don’t move. I want you to be well-behaved kids on this trip.” Then he started to play hide-and-seek with his friends and the misses while Sheikh Khadir prepared some hot coals for his shisha. We were crying and coughing from the smoke, except for Hammo and Mamo, because their father is a butcher.

Teacher was hiding in the trees with Miss Reema, and when they came out again, Miss Reema’s mouth was red like the coals on Sheikh Khadir’s shisha.

Then Teacher told us, “Don’t swim in the river, because there are whirlpools.” He and the misses and his friends swam, and Teacher was diving under Miss Reema and disappearing, and Miss Reema was laughing and shouting, “Ay!”

But Artin didn’t obey Teacher and swam in the river and was going to drown, so Teacher hit him and then saved him by doing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. “Go on, you drown too!” he told Miss Reema.

Then Teacher said to us, “Come on, let’s play volleyball.” He divided us into three groups: one to fetch the ball behind Teacher’s team and one behind his enemies’ team, also to fetch the ball, with the third group in the middle to act as the net. Teacher made some powerful serves, and the ball hit those of us in the middle on our heads, and he said, “Duck down, you jerks.” Then Teacher lost the game and tore the ball apart, and we heard it exploding, and he hit us all and sat playing Trumps Forty-One. Suddenly Teacher said, “Forty-one tricks,” and we all clapped for him. We told him how many tricks his opponents had, but Teacher had only won two of the forty-one, so he hit us all and tore up the cards and said, “Get the food ready, you dogs.” So we rushed off to get the food ready. Hammo and Mamo were grilling meat, because their father is a butcher, and Jako was washing the plates, and Rustum was drying them, and Wilato was carrying the plates, along with Salamo and Sharo, and putting them in front of Teacher and his friends and the misses, and Teacher said, “Get your sandwiches out, because the meat will make the kids’ hands dirty.” So we got our sandwiches out and started to eat bread with zaatar and olive oil, and the sandwiches were delicious, and Teacher and his friends were eating the grilled meat, the kebabs and the shish tawouk.

Then Teacher began to pour water into the glasses up to the middle, and when he poured more water on top of the water, it turned into milk. Teacher drank two glasses of milk and began to sing “Why, Violet?” Then he drank a third glass and put his hand out to touch Miss Reema’s hair, then he drank a fourth glass and reached out to touch Miss Salwa’s hair, and she gave him a big slap and said, “What? Are you cross-eyed, you jerk?” Teacher jumped up angrily, kicked over the glasses of milk and the plates, hit all of us, and said, “Get onto the bus. The trip’s over, you animals.”

The bus set off again, and Teacher’s friend didn’t play the drum, and Miss Reema didn’t dance, and the maths teacher didn’t sing, There were six of us at the spring,and we didn’t sing the refrain, And along came my beloved, and then we were seven. Teacher didn’t clap, and we didn’t see the nature scenes, or the rivers, and we didn’t see the dams that generate electricity and prevent floods, or the springs. We did see the horrible feudal landlord beating the energetic peasant who was appealing to the chairman of the farmers’ association for help, but the chairman wasn’t answering. And we didn’t see the cow that raced the train, and we didn’t see the train, and we didn’t see the hardworking peasant plowing with the modern plow. The old plow was much superior. We didn’t see the hills or the lakes or the green plains. We didn’t see anything.

Then we came back happy.

 

 

Torpedo Taxi

Although it was pleasant springlike weather, I didn’t want to wait long for a seat in a shared taxi, so I was tempted to get into the first one I could find. One driver was bellowing out, “Dirbasiya, Dirbasiya,” but no one was getting into his taxi. The other passengers were waiting for another taxi, and only the ignorant ones chose to ride with the driver who was bellowing. The Qamishli taxi station was crowded with “torpedo” taxis that serve the nearby villages and towns. The passengers scurried around like ants, getting in and out of taxis, except in the corner where the Dirbasiya passengers were standing. They stood like statues, indifferent to the entreaties of the driver, who now needed a few more passengers before he set off, because his old American car was big enough for ten passengers or more. There was something we didn’t know, those of us who did eventually get into his taxi.

What we didn’t know was that it was the mail taxi. The driver delivered mail to all the villages along the road to Dirbasiya. “Don’t pretend you didn’t know,” one of the self-important passengers told me.

I thought about waiting till another taxi came, but along came an ignoramus who was tempted by the driver’s calls and got into the taxi. At this point the driver sprang into action, started the engine, stuck his head out of the window, and shouted, “One seat for Dirbasiya!” I looked at the frozen faces of the passengers around me and then made my way through them shyly and got into the taxi, knowing that they would be saying to themselves, “That idiot couldn’t resist.” And off we went.

There were ten of us passengers, united by our ignorance and stupidity. The driver was listening to some bouzouki music by Hassan, Dirbasiya’s ace player, who is famous for smoking Kent cigarettes. But soon the driver turned right off the main road and drove across muddy ground to a small village, honking the horn rhythmically and with cheerful abandon. As soon as the car stopped, the village people—women, men, and barefoot children—gathered round it. The driver, whose name was Amin Ramo, took out a bag with the name of the village on it and started to give out the letters. Then he turned to us and asked, “Which of you know how to read?” I put my hand up, as did two other people. We got out and started reading the letters to the recipients and even translating them into Kurdish. Amin the driver was doing the same with one of the villagers, who were illiterate one and all. Suddenly we heard one of the women wailing and beating her chest while her husband wept silently. We turned towards them. “Her son has been killed in Turkey,” said Amin, as if this was totally normal.

We all went into the house of the dead man’s family and tried to calm down the mother and father. When the father had calmed down completely, we ran over to the mother, who was pulling her hair out. We and the village women tried to calm her down too. Eventually we got her into one of the bedrooms, while she screamed out the name of her dead son. Amin hinted that we should leave, but the father suddenly stood up and broke his silence. “No one will move until you’ve had a meal in memory of the dead,” he said. So we sat down.

The father slaughtered a sheep and started skinning it and cleaning it as we looked on sadly in uncomfortable silence. When he’d finished cutting up the carcass, he called to his wife in a loud voice. She came running with extraordinary energy, carrying a large pot, put some firewood between the three stones that they call athafi, and lit the fire.

By sunset we had left the village of the dead son, heading again towards Dirbasiya, which is no more than sixty kilometers from Qamishli. Five minutes after we set off, Amin turned left, honking his horn to tell the villagers he was coming. We got out energetically to speed up the process of reading and translating for the people who had received letters. As Amin smoked a Kent cigarette in the dark, one of the women let out a long trilling noise, and we sought the devil’s protection from another distraction. Her son in Germany had got married, and so had “become German,” as her husband put it. He was proud of his son, who had put the Germans to shame. Of course we congratulated them with broad smiles and extravagant words. We set off for the taxi, but, lo and behold, the blood of the next sheep had already been shed. “No one can leave. Tonight we shall celebrate the wedding of my German son,” said the father, without waiting for our consent.

Within half an hour, the bouzouki player and his rhythm accompaniment had the dancers writhing, while the singer made his way to the village. The father had sent a pickup specially to bring him from the capital—from Qamishli, that is.

At first we thought we would soon be off, but there was more partying to come. The singer told us about his appearances in Derik, Ain Diwar, Dirbasiya, and Amouda as he dug into the meat spread out on top of cooked bulgur wheat. Then we found out we were going to sleep there, because there was another party in the morning—one with drums and flutes. Amin winked at us, and we attacked the food and went to sleep, seeing the streets of Dirbasiya only in our dreams.

In the morning, we had to eat again after the drum and flute party was over, and we set off again towards Dirbasiya after embracing the father of the German bridegroom. He told us all about the advantages of German nationality and the beauty and splendor of the city of Munich.

For exactly ten minutes, Amin didn’t turn off the main road, and we were too worried to ask him if we would have to go through another village. Then the taxi turned off again, and a new epic began. Someone had received a letter from a brother he hadn’t heard from in more than forty years. Of course there was another sheep in this village, this one smiling naively at the news that would cost him his life through a violent death by a sharp knife.

As usual we heard tell of the virtues, genius, generosity, and gallantry of the long-lost brother, although he had disappeared as a child. We set off again and slept in another village, because one of the local boys had passed his baccalaureate exam. Then finally we were close to the village of Tell Ayloul, which is five kilometers from Dirbasiya. When Amin turned off towards the village, I waved to him to stop, got out of the taxi, and told Amin, “I’ll walk the rest of the way to Dirbasiya.” All the passengers thought this was a good idea and got out too. We walked into the darkness, and we could see the lights of the city of Mardin in Turkey on its beautiful plateau. Meanwhile Amin’s taxi continued towards the village of Tell Ayloul. We looked at each other and smiled, probably saying the same thing silently to ourselves: “What idiots we were! Only a sucker gets into the mail taxi.” But suddenly the Turkish border guards opened fire in our direction, and we rushed to take shelter behind Amin’s taxi, which was blowing its cheerful horn. We shouted at it to stop, but, lo and behold, the taxi plunged away into the darkness. The houses lit up little by little in Tell Ayloul and, out of breath, we followed the lights to the village.

 

 

The Hero

It’s a pain in the neck if you’re from Dirbasiya and live in Aleppo, because you have to be hospitable towards all the Dirbasiya people who come to Aleppo for bureaucratic reasons, for treatment in the Aleppo hospitals, to look for a missing relative, or on other such missions. This has to be done with a smiling face, an open heart, and unlimited generosity. You cannot show any sign that you are resentful or bothered by any incident that takes place while they are with you, or else they take it as a personal affront. If you happen to be a teenaged boy, it’s even more of a pain in the neck, because the task of escorting these tourists often falls on your shoulders. As the only boy, I was the unlucky one in our household. My six sisters gloated over my ordeal whenever I had to get dressed in the morning and go out on a tourist trip to the doctor’s with visitors who were ill.

There’s no way to escape these people. I tried that once when I went on a trip with the husband of my Aunt Nora. She had gone missing in Turkey, and we found her forty years later. One day her husband wanted to go shopping, and I had to escort him and translate for him between Arabic and Kurdish. We spent three hours in the watch market as he searched in vain for a Seiko 5, or a “Seiko Besh,” as they say in Turkish. When I had had enough of him and of my mission as escort and translator, I took him to the pharmaceuticals warehouse that my father owns, and I told him to wait for me for some minutes so that I could look for the Seiko Besh watch for him. Then I escaped. Of course, my father, who had to put up with the shopping tourists in his office, smashed my ribs and practiced various methods of physical and psychological torture on me, so that I would never again even think of making him suffer from such tourists.

Another time, I left a sick female tourist at the doctor’s. I put the telephone numbers of our house and my father’s office in her trembling hand as she was on the examination couch. My head had exploded from translating between Kurdish and Arabic for the doctor. Sometimes she said her stomach was hurting and at other times her liver, and then she would correct herself and say, “No, it’s my kidneys.” It ended with me unable to translate when she told me it was her ureter that was hurting, because I didn’t know the Kurdish word for ureter, so I abandoned the doctor with his mysterious patient and went off looking for a Kurdish-Arabic medical dictionary, because I’m going to need it often, with so many sick visitors in our house.

One memorable day, I went out early in the morning to take Mr. Ahmad Bizki and his wife, Ghazzi, to the train station. I was thirteen at the time, and after I had found Ahmad and his wife their seats, I asked to take my leave, but he insisted I stay a while, as the train hadn’t left yet. Whenever I asked to leave, he insisted I stay, as if I were sitting in his home. Eventually the train began to move, and I rushed to the nearest door. After some moments of reflection and cowardice, I shut my eyes, jumped, and rolled when I hit the ground. Then I noticed that I had their tickets in my hand, so I ran after the train, trying without success to hand the tickets to anyone standing near a door.

I went to the officials in the station and explained the situation. They sent a telegram to Jebrin, the next station, and the matter was sorted out. The inspector on the train gave the two old people hell until they arrived in Jebrin. Then the only member of staff at the station boarded the train to vindicate the accused. Ahmad Bizki, I gathered later, was amazed by my intelligence, as well as by my heroism in jumping off the moving train.

Two months later, news came to Aleppo that I was now a national hero in Dirbasiya thanks to Ahmad Bizki. He was going around Dirbasiya market talking about me, and every time he told the story he added ten kilometers an hour to the speed of the train when I jumped off it. He also relished saying the words telegram and Jebrin Station to his listeners, who were amazed how smart I was, though I have in fact proved to be a complete nincompoop in all the contracts I have ever signed in my life, starting with marriage and divorce contracts and ending with work agreements. I am no more associated with heroism than I am with intelligence. On top of my stupidity, I am a coward when faced with anything to do with technology, from gas and electricity to cars and planes. I need several kinds of tranquillizers before I even set foot on a plane, and then I swallow every kind of alcohol available on the aircraft, not because I like it, but from fear of being so high above the ground. I also stay awake on buses, always watching the road with the driver and asking him to slow down. But through it all, Ahmad Bizki has never tired of talking about my heroism and intelligence on that memorable day.

 

One day I happened to be traveling from Qamishli to Dirbasiya. I got into a taxi and told the driver to take it easy. He smiled and said, “I’ve never seen such a modest hero as you. But then, of course, heroes like you never like to show off.” So I had to put up with all his driving stunts along the potholed road and his pleasure in showing me how fast he could go, and why not? I was “the hero.” Eventually I reached Dirbasiya half-dead from fright. At one stage the driver had asked me to jump out of the taxi when it was travelling at 120 kilometers an hour, just to show the other passengers that I was the hero in flesh and blood.

Before I had even recovered from that ordeal, Ahmad Bizki grabbed me in a crowd and shouted excitedly: “Here’s the hero I was telling you about!” Now the speed of the train when I jumped was more than two hundred kilometers an hour.

I stayed ten days in Dirbasiya, and Ahmad Bizki used me throughout as a “show and tell” prop. He exploited me to the full, lifting me a foot off the ground by my shirt collar so that the crowds could see me and shouting, “This is the hero, the genius!”

I can no longer bear going to Dirbasiya. If I go out on a bicycle, people ask me to jump off. If I get on a donkey cart, the driver whips the donkey to go faster, then turns to me and says, “Go on, hero—throw yourself off!” If I’m in a taxi, the other passengers shout at the driver to accelerate and ask me at what speed I would like to jump. I have also been asked detailed questions about Jebrin Station, a name on everyone’s lips. It has become more famous than Aleppo or Damascus, and even New York itself.

Overtime, my fear of taxis, trains, and planes has grown. One day recently I arrived pale-faced in Dirbasiya because I was too frightened to sleep on the train and then I was too tense on the Qamishli-Dirbasiya road. By chance I came across Ahmad Bizki’s son, who was telling a group of people about my acts of heroism. With a trembling heart and a spirit fearful of the stupidities of all drivers, I decided to go back to Aleppo.

 

 

Luqman Derki was born in 1966 in the town of Darbasiya, in the far north of Syria. He studied in Aleppo and Damascus but did not complete his course at university. He was one of the founders of Alifmagazine in Damascus and helped launch the satirical magazine al-Domari. He has published six collections of poetry and one book of short stories. He has written a daily column and has worked in theater and television as a writer, actor, and director. He set up the Bait al-Qasid (Poetry House) project, where he introduced poets and poems from all over the world. He left Syria in October 2012 for Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, moved to Mardin in Turkey, and then settled in France. He writes articles and stories on Arabic websites, and reads his own articles on Alf Sarda wa Sarda (A Thousand and One Narratives) on Radio SouriaLi, which was set up by young Syrians in exile.

Jonathan Wright studied Arabic, Turkish, and Islamic history at St. John’s College, Oxford University. Between 1980 and 2009 he worked for Reuters news agency, mainly in the Middle East. He began literary translation in 2008 and has since translated about a dozen novels, as well as collections of short stories, essays, and poetry. He won the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation twice, for The Bamboo Stalk by Kuwaiti writer Saud al-Sanoussi and Azazeel by Egyptian writer Youssef Ziedan, as well as the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2014for his translation of The Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim. His latest literary translations include Jokes for the Gunmen, short stories by Mazen Maarouf, and Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2018.

[Purchase Issue 17 here.]

Border Strip: Three Stories

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